A Brief History of Palmyra

A view of the ruins of Palmyra in 2008. Copyright Natasha Sheldon


Palmyra’s history is one of highs and lows; profit, riches, decline, and destruction. It rose from an oasis settlement to become a prosperous city, fought over by empires – yet always maintaining a unique identity.

The remains of the city speak of this to the observant viewer. Pieced together like a jigsaw, they tell the story of Palmyra from its rise to its fall. It is a narrative that is now at threat of the war in Syria and the city’s current occupation by ISIS.

So what do the remains of Palmyra tell us about the city– and why is it so special?


Location of Palmyra. Google Images.

Location, Location, Location

The settlement of Tadmor (as Palmyra was originally known), grew up in the Syrian Desert, around an oasis fed by underground springs from nearby mountains. The area was first settled in the third millennium BC, and its name began to appear in ancient Middle Eastern documents such as the archives of the Ancient Assyrians.

But it was not until Tadmor became part of the Seleucid empire– the eastern portion of Alexander the Great’s Empire, divided after his death– that Tadmor came into its own. Instability in the first century BC caused a change in the trade route between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean. The new, safer, shorter route passed straight through Tadmor.

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The Tariff Court, Palmyra (2008) . Copyright Natasha Sheldon.

The Rise of Trade

By Roman times, Tadmor was a neutral space between the Roman and Parthian Empire. Caravans from India, China, and the east flowed through the town, making it wealthy.

The tariff court in Tadmor was the place in which these trains stopped to pay their taxes to the city. A large stone listing Tadmor/Palmyran tariff arrangements identified it. Caravans entered the large central courtyard through a grand, triple entrance. Despite its extravagant design, the area remained unpaved. This was the norm in the city we know as Palmyra; a concession to the feet of the camels in the caravans.

This wealth created a new elite who expressed their prosperity– and ensured their names would endure– through building ostentatious and original tombs on the outskirts of the city, which remained in use until the third century AD.

The tower tombs were the first of these monuments to the dead. In the early first century AD, the city added hypogeum or underground chambers, a combination of hypogeum and tower tombs, and finally, in the second century, temple tombs.


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The cella of the Temple of Baal (2008). Copyright Natasha Sheldon

The Arrival of Rome


But Rome desired Tadmor: for her wealth and strategic position. Marcus Antonius tried and failed to take the city. But where he failed, his rival Octavian succeeded. By the dawn of the Imperial era, the city had pledged allegiance to the newly-made Emperor Augustus.

Tadmor now became Palmyra. The building of the first eastern-classical hybrid architecture began in this period, most notably the cella of the Temple of Bel. Palmyra was accepting Rome– but still not Roman enough.

But the slow process of absorption had begun, and by Nero’s reign, Palmyra was a full member of the province of Syria.

Sculpture from the tomb of the three brothers. Google images.

Palmyra: The Height of Prosperity

By 150 AD, Rome had installed a garrison at Palmyra as tensions between Rome, and the Parthians increased. But despite the unrest, the city had entered its golden age.

In 129 AD, the Emperor Hadrian visited the city and made it a civitas libera – a free state. Yet Palmyra was becoming increasingly Roman while maintaining its Semitic identity.

The city built the temple of Baal, a classical temple decorated with eastern motifs. Tombs also showed this hybrid nature. The Three Brothers, who dedicated a hypogeum or chamber tomb just outside the city, painted their tomb with frescos with analogies of life after death using classical myths depicted in Syrian style.

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The Colonnaded portico, 2008. Copyright Natasha Sheldon.

 Palmyra in The Third Century

In 212 AD, Palmyra hosted a visit from Emperor Caracalla, whose mother was a Syrian. The city was now made a Roman colony, and building began on some of the city’s finest monuments.

The city lined the main street of decumanus Palmyra with a colonnaded portico, earning it the name the Colonnaded Street. Brackets on the eponymous columns are all that remains of the shelves for the statues of city notables who looked down on both passersby and visitors.

Two further enhancements were also added: the Monumental Gateway which tied was the Temple of Bel visually into the rest of the city and the grand tetrapylon, a cluster of pink granite columns on a raised platform that marked the main intersection of the colonnaded street.

But despite all this building, Palmyra was in decline. The caravan trade was in decline as once more, this fringe region became unsettled.

Zenobia by Gustave Schmaltz. Google Images.


To bolster up the line of defenses at the edge of the empire, Rome put its faith into one powerful family: the Juli Aurelii Septimii. Rome put the family’s head, Septimius Odainat, in charge of Rome’s legions in the area and made him a consul and governor of Syria. Odainat successfully secured the area. But in 267 AD, he was murdered. His son, Vaballath, was too young to take his place. So the boy’s mother, Zenobia, stepped in.

Queen Zenobia was not content to do Rome’s bidding. She aimed to make Palmyra independent again and to that end, began to reclaim vast swathes of Syria. By 270 AD, she had reached as far as Egypt and Anatolia, prompting Emperor Aurelian to undergo a dangerous counterattack.

Aurelian drove back Zenobia’s forces, and the Queen fled, only to be recaptured as she attempted to cross the Euphrates. Her captors took her to Rome, where she appeared in the Emperor’s triumphal parade before quietly fading from history.

Little remains in Palmyra particular to this era except for two columns near to the tetraphylon. The statues of both are now gone, but one bears the name of Odainat. The other carried a dedication to Zenobia. But on Palmyra’s fall, the Romans erased her name.

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The Camp of Diocletian. Copyright Natasha Sheldon.

Palmyra’s Decline

Even without Zenobia, Palmyra was no longer content to remain a Roman possession. The city revolted in 273 AD, massacring the Roman garrison. This time, Aurelian did not spare the city. He killed its people, and mass looting occurred.

Palmyra was now humbled and greatly diminished. But it was still strategically useful to Rome in the war against Persia. Walls were built for the first time, and Emperor Diocletian ordered the construction of a camp for the Roman garrison– the so-called Camp of Diocletian-on the northwestern edge of the city, swallowing up an area accommodating a temple to the eastern goddess Allat.

The construction revamped the so-called baths of Diocletian and added columns of red Egyptian granite to the entrance. But aside from the building of a few Christian churches in the Byzantine period and the strengthening of the city walls in the mid 6th century, Palmyra was left to fall into ruins.

Arab occupation and Loss

In 634 BC, its first set of Muslim invaders (under Khalid Ibn al Walid, one of the military leaders of the first caliph) took Palmyra.

Like today, the Islamic forces occupied the city. They restored the Temple of Bel as a fortress and built the Arab castle that still overlooks the remains of Palmyra to this day.

But aside from removing the faces from Palmyra’s iconic artwork because of Islamic prohibitions, these first invaders respected Palmyra. And when they finally left the city, they left it for the desert to quietly reclaim it.

Let us hope that the current phase of Palmyra’s story ends as peacefully.


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